Jules Verne was born February 8th 1828 and died in 1905. He and H.G. Wells are considered to be the ‘fathers’ of modern Science Fiction although Edgar Allan Poe was actually ahead of both of them having published his first science fiction story in 1845 while Verne only began to publish his Science Fiction stories in the 1860s. One of the many works Jules Verne published was a biography of Poe and he was quoted as saying that Poe was truly the father of Science Fiction. Be that as it may, Verne has been credited with being one of the originators of Science Fiction as a genre and his prodigious writings certainly qualify him as an early giant in the field.
Verne was a man of many talents and after qualifying as a lawyer in 1848 he went to Paris and began to practice law (a little) and write plays and libretti (a lot). He was a success as a playwright and for the next ten years continued to write for the theatre until his father, discovering that his son was not a lawyer as he was supposed to be, cut off his funds. Verne was forced to turn to stockbroking, which he did very well at, for support of himself and his family. He continued to write, however, as he had done all his life. One of his supporters was Victor Hugo, who introduced him to his (Hugo’s) publisher, Pierre-Jules Hedtzel. Hedtzel liked Verne’s work and believed he could sell it but there was a catch – Verne’s stories needed to be more cheerful and with more happy endings.
Even after his death, Hertzel’s influence continued to be felt in that Verne’s characters and their situations probably had more humour in them than they would have had Verne not been persuaded by his book sales to continue to have humour and happy endings.
The hallmark of Science Fiction is that Science is one of the most important ingredients. No matter whether a story is an adventure tale, a speculation on the future or a commentary on world events, Science is one of the most important means by which the writer fulfills her/his intention. I know that I’m preaching to the converted here and that most of you probably know more about Science Fiction than I do but the above sounded good as an introduction to the three works of Jules Verne’s I intend to discuss: Around the World in Eighty Days, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Having just defined Science Fiction as something that always contains Science as a crucial element I now move to discussing Around the World in Eighty Days, which isn’t, strictly speaking, a Science Fiction book. Fortunately for me, Amazing Stories also includes fantasy and fantasy this book most assuredly is. It concerns the attempt of one Phineas Fogg, the quintessential Englishman unruffled in every situation regardless how bizarre or difficult it might be; and his attempt to circumnavigate the globe in only eighty days.
The trip comes about as a result of a bet. Fogg’s friends and fellow gentlemans’ club members make a wager that he can’t get around the world in such short time. At the beginning of the book the author is at pains to describe how very respectable, consistent and unadventurous a man Fogg is. He gets up at the same time, goes to the club at the same time and comes home at the same time. A less adventurous chap one could never hope to meet. He even dismissed a manservant who had been with him for some years because the man was one minute late in the delivery of his newspaper one morning.
Having made a sizable wager (twenty-thousand pounds Sterling) Fogg sets out to accomplish his seemingly impossible goal. He goes home early from his club and instructs his new manservant to pack Fogg and himself a carpet bag because they were to depart that very evening on their journey.
What follows is a hilarious and impossible tale of, among other things, crossing India on an elephant (purchased for the task), rescuing a woman from being ritually burned alive with her late husband, an encounter with hostile Indians in which Fogg wins, and a host of other remarkable and silly adventures. Oh yes, Fogg is a suspected robber of the Bank of England and so is pursued on his trip by an intrepid police detective who is at pains to arrest him but keeps missing the warrant which allows him to arrest Fogg but only on British soil. I leave the reader to find out whether the gentleman was successful.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, is much more a Science Fiction novel in that two of the three travellers are amateur scientists and the trip is carefully recorded on several types of scientific paraphernalia including a barometer and a compass.
Professor Liedenbrook is as quintessential a German Scientist as Fogg is an English Gentleman. Verne makes great use of stereotypes for humour – particularly those of a Frenchman in describing the English and the German temperaments. “In a word he was a learned miser…Germany has not a few professors of this sort” is how his nephew and fellow traveller, Axel, describes him at the beginning of the book. Both characters are mineralogists and so they are very anxious to see the centre of the globe following in the footsteps of Arne Saknussemm, an Icelandic Alchemist who had apparently made the trip sometime in the 14th century.
The trip is undertaken in part to answer the question of whether the heat rises as one travels towards the core of the planet. They are armed with an ”Eigels’ centigrade thermometer which graduates up to 150 degrees centigrade, an Aneroid barometer, a chronometer, two compasses, a night glass and two of Ruhmkorff’s apparatus which, by means of an electric current, supplied a safe and handy portable light”. With these worthy tools, a phlegmatic guide who saves their lives innumerable times by performing feats which are quite impossible in real life but make a great yarn, the travellers set out. They encounter live dinosaurs, an underground sea and a host of other strange things. I won’t spoil the ending because it is far too good to be told. Suffice it to say that it is as wonderful, strange and silly as the rest of the book.
For those of us who hoped, vainly of course, that there was a time when art didn’t bow to political expediency, must be, as usual, disappointed. In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, one of Verne’s most popular novels, the Captain of the submarine, Captain Nemo, (Latin for no one) was living under the surface of the ocean to protest the behaviour of the British after the Indian Rebellion of 1867. Originally Nemo was supposed to be a Polish man protesting the Partition of Poland by Russia and the death of his family during the January uprising. Russia being, at the time, an ally of France, Verne was ‘persuaded’ to change the nationality of the character and that of the enemy.
I choose to discuss this book, Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea, last because it is a considerable departure from the two books mentioned above. The three travellers who undertake this journey do so as captives rather than voluntarily and the feel of the book is much more serious in a number of ways. Verne spends pages of the novel describing the plant and animal life of the deep ocean almost as painstakingly as Darwin himself. He uses what was then known of undersea life to add verisimilitude to the narrative. Captain Nemo is a much more serious character than those in the above books. His enmity towards the people on land is deep and he goes so far as to attack vessels on the open sea. The submarine itself is so sophisticated that the British vessels cannot identify it and believe it to be some strange animal.
The Nautilus is a remarkable piece of technology. Although the idea of the submarine had been around since ancient times, the 19th century saw the development of many submersible vessels in various countries including France, and Verne would have known about these experiments. The Nautilous, however, was an entirely different vessel. It was coal fired but used a sodium mercury battery which provided limitless power and the double-hull construction made it immune to attack especially with the weapons available. Some of the fanciful aspects are present, such as the use of dive suits on the ocean floor, but on the whole the book is very serious despite the characters of the Canadian whaler and the servant who can categorize anything but doesn’t actually know what the categories mean.
It is no wonder that Verne is seen as one of the ‘fathers of science fiction’. He contributed greatly to the body of work and to the shaping of the genre. His prodigious output is both entertaining and, in such novels as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and others, instructional as well.